David Higgins: Figuring out flower development

“I’ve always been interested in plants. My father and I had a garden growing up, and so we used to grow vegetables and so we always tried to think up ways to have a better garden – to have the plants grow better. As I grew older and I took high school biology courses, my questions kind of changed from how could we grow better plants to how do plants grow themselves.

“My name is David Higgins. I’m a senior double-majoring in plant biology and genetics. And I’m in the university marching band and the university honors program.

“This summer I’m working on campus doing a research project in the Genetics Department through funding from the American Society of Plant Biologists as a recipient of the 2011 Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship.

“I’m working in the lab of Dr. Bob Franks, and our lab studies flower development.

“Flowers are the reproductive organs of plants. And so we are looking at the different genes that are involved in causing the flowers grow and develop. It’s already been previously discovered that two genes that play a big role are two genes called SEUSS and AINTEGUMENTA. And when those two genes lose their function in plants, the reproductive parts of the flowers don’t develop correctly.

“While those are two big pieces of the puzzle, we are looking to see what other genes might also be involved in the process and how they lay in the pathway of flower development.

“We do PCR, which is a way to amplify sections of DNA from the plant to determine whether our knockouts or our mutations are there and in the right locations.

“We do traditional crossing, which is where you take the pollen from one flower with one mutation and apply it to the female part of another flower with a different mutation, and so then, through selecting the offspring, you can find one that has both of the mutations of the parent and then combine the two for the next generation.

“And then we look at the effects that those different combinations of mutations have on how the flowers develop and how they appear.

“I’m definitely learning about what it takes to be a researcher. I’m learning how to phrase the questions that you are asking and how to turn those questions into experiments — and how to always get answers from your experiments, even if they don’t turn out the way that you planned them to.

“I’m learning that I’m not content with just leaving something unanswered. And if something goes wrong, then I want to go back and flip through all my notes and figure out what I can change and do again to make it better.

“I feel like it’s hard work, but it’s also important work, because there’s so much we don’t know about biology, but there’s also so much good that can come from it.”

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